Leukemia: The Basics

Author: Christina Bach, LCSW, MBE, OSW-C
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: January 25, 2024

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or blood cells. It is classified by two factors:

  • How quickly the leukemia develops, called either acute (developing quickly) or chronic (developing more slowly).
  • What type of white blood cells are affected (either lymphoid or myeloid).

The main types of leukemia are:

Risk Factors

Risk factors include:

  • Exposure to high-energy radiation. 
  • Genetic Syndromes, such as Down syndrome.
  • Exposure to the chemical benzene (through work or smoking).
  • Prior treatment with certain chemotherapies.
  • History of blood disorders such as MDS.


Currently, there are no screening tests for leukemia.

Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia

Common symptoms are:

  • Fever.
  • Infections.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Pale Skin.
  • Bruising easily.
  • Chills.
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver, and/or spleen.
  • Night sweats.
  • Weight loss.
  • Bone or joint pain.

In acute leukemia, the blasts (immature white blood cells) can build up in the brain or spinal cord which can lead to:

  • Headaches.
  • Vomiting.
  • Confusion.
  • Seizures.

Diagnosis of Leukemia

Your provider will ask you about your medical history and do a physical exam. A blood test called a complete blood count will be done to see if there are blasts in your blood. To figure out the type of leukemia, a sample of bone marrow needs to be taken through a procedure called a bone marrow biopsy. Your provider may order other tests like a CT scan, MRI, chest x-ray, further blood tests, or lumbar puncture (spinal tap).


There are many different therapies used to treat leukemia. Your treatment plan depends on the type of leukemia you have, your health, and your goals for treatment. The therapies used to treat leukemia include:

The goal of these treatments is to kill all of the cancer cells and to put you into remission. 

This article is a basic guide to leukemia. You can learn more about your type of leukemia and treatment by using the links  below.

Resources for More Information: Leukemia

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).


Cleveland Clinic. Leukemia. 2022.

Penn Medicine. Leukemia. Retrieved 2024.

American Cancer Society. Leukemia. Retrieved 2024.

Leukemia and lymphoma society. Leukemia. Retrieved 2024.

Davis, A. S., Viera, A. J., & Mead, M. D. (2014). Leukemia: an overview for primary care. Am Fam Physician, 89(9), 731-738.

Niederhuber, J. E., Armitage, J. O., Doroshow, J. H., Kastan, M. B., Tepper, J. E., & Abeloff, M. D. (2014). Abeloff's clinical oncology, 5th edition (p. 2186).


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